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Vol. LXIII, No. 48
 
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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DVD Review

Still Dazzling at 70, the World of Oz, the Glory of Judy Garland

Stuart Mitchner

Although MGM released The Wizard of Oz in August 1939, and re-released it after the war, the film’s reign as an all-American holiday favorite didn’t begin until a Sunday-before-Thanksgiving screening on CBS television in 1956 that was watched by 40 million people, including the President and the First Lady. In Because of the Wonderful Things It Does: The Legacy of Oz, one of several documentaries included in Warner’s two-disc Special Edition, there they are, Ike and Mamie sharing the national moment, all smiles as they hover over the pale glow of their television hearth. This was in the days before color TV and cable, however, which means that all over the land — even in the White House where the reception looks iffy — this triumphant revival of a film famous for its color was viewed in black and white.

Munchkin Mischief

Among the Oz-related phenomena pictured in The Legacy of Oz are the Oz Fests, wholesome All-American celebrations not to be confused of course with the heavy metal Ozzy Osbourne Ozzfests of the 1990s, which are left discreetly unmentioned. Interestingly enough, the only people from the original production of The Wizard still alive and fit enough to show up at these festivals are octogenarian Munchkins like Meinhardt Raabe, also the only surviving cast member who had a speaking role in the movie. Already known at the time as a spokesman cum mascot for Oscar Meyer (“Little Oscar, the World’s Smallest Chef”), Raabe played the Munchkin coroner who confirmed the death of the Wicked Witch of the West (“As coroner, I must aver/I thoroughly examined her/ And she’s not only merely dead/She’s really, most sincerely dead!”). Raabe’s book Memories of a Munchkin: An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road (Back Stage Books, 2005), which he signs at Oz Fests, contains a sympathetic portrait of the film’s director, Victor Fleming. In spite of his reputation for being “hard driving,” Fleming was, says Rabe, “an extremely sensitive, compassionate individual” who “never raised his voice with the Muchkins at all” and was “very concerned for the little people.”

In his biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon 2008), Michael Sragow reveals that there were those among the Munchkins who might have been happier partying with the headbangers at an Ozzfest than with the kids dressed up as Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion parading down Main Street U.S.A. at one of the festivals celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary in 1989. Sragow quotes producer Mervyn LeRoy on the Munchkins: “They were wild. Every night there were fights and orgies and all kinds of carryings-on. Almost every night, the Culver City police had to rush over to the hotel to keep them from killing each other.” One of the screenwriters, Noel Langley, agreed that the “little people” were “hell-raisers.”

In The Legacy of Oz, testimonials to sweetness and light of all things Oz abound, and there’s no reason to quibble with Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr’s son John when he observes that the movie speaks of a “longing for joy and abundance.” Nor is there any reason to dispute the idea that The Wizard is “ingrained in the American psyche” and stands for “the noblest, kindest, very best of humanity.” But there should also be room in Oz’s portion of the American psyche for carousing Munchkins and the fact that Judy Garland was force fed amphetamines and barbiturates during the filming. The same children who will never forget the thrill of the moment when Dorothy opens the door to the technicolor glory of Oz will also probably never forget being scared silly by flying monkeys, talking trees with grasping arms, and Margaret Hamilton’s green-faced witch, not to mention her Kansas double, the bicycle-riding schoolmarm from hell who was determined to have Toto destroyed.

In the Book

Having had only a quick look through L. Frank Baum’s book, which was published in 1900 as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and is available in a lavishly illustrated and annotated Centennial Edition (Norton 2000), I can’t make in-depth comparisons between the original work and the film. Even fans of both would most likely agree that the movie, with all its obvious advantages, prevails. The most significant among many differences is that in Baum’s version Oz is meant to be real. In the first sequels, all Aunt Em and Uncle Henry know is that Dorothy occasionally disappears and comes back telling of a fantastic land. They think she’s “merely a dreamer.” In The Emerald City of Oz (1910). Baum finally erases all doubt when Dorothy arranges with Princess Ozma to have her aunt and uncle transported to Oz to see for themselves.

The producers of the film prefer for the audience to think that “it was all a dream,” which is why they impose human doubles for the witch, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and Wizard on the Kansas scenes. That sequence is bleak and brief in Baum’s original, the cyclone coming almost the moment the story begins. The little we see of Dorothy’s home life is grim. It’s a gray world, a burned-out looking landscape (“Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere”). The landscape seems also to have infected Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, who had come there “as a young wife” and was now “thin and gaunt and never smiled” because the sun and wind “had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray.” Auntie is so far gone in gloom that the sound of Dorothy’s laughter and “merry voice” makes her “scream and press her hand upon her heart.” As for Uncle Henry, he “never laughed” and “did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn and rarely spoke.” The little black dog called Toto was all that “saved Dorothy from growing as gray as her surroundings.”

Baum’s presumably accentuating the dreary negative as a way to make sure readers fully appreciate the stark contrast to Oz’s brilliance and “the wonderful sights” Dorothy sees when she opens the door on “a country of marvelous beauty” with “lovely patches of green sward all about.”

The opening of that door in the MGM version is one of the great moments in American film. While the sepia tone of the Kansas scenes isn’t as dire as the wasteland described by Baum, the impact of that feast of color is overwhelming. You have to wonder, as does Hairspray director and Oz fan John Waters in one of the documentaries included with the two-disc DVD, what makes Dorothy so determined to get back to dreary Kansas? Dorothy’s motive, in both book and film, is unselfish; she wants to get back because she knows her aunt and uncle are worrying about her. And they’re her only family. Baum claims in the introduction that his book intends “no fearsome moral” but is for “the modern child who seeks only entertainment.” This idea makes more sense in the movie, where Dorothy has, in effect, dreamed her way into the lead role in a musical fantasy that could be subtitled Dorothy’s Dream. But why quibble? The book offers only a sketch of a conventionally cute little girl named Dorothy who looks to be about seven. The film gives us Judy Garland.

Unforgettable

While the The Wizard of Oz is almost entirely Victor Fleming’s picture, King Vidor directed the opening Kansas sequence in which Judy Garland sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This happened because, as Michael Sragow reports, Fleming’s “conquest of Oz was so complete that it may have helped take him off the film” so that he could step in to direct Gone With the Wind, after George Cukor was fired. Although other cast members found Fleming to be “ruthless” (both Margaret Hamilton and her double as the witch were seriously injured during the production), Garland thrived under his direction, developing “a deep, lifelong affection for both him and the picture.” Fleming was able to calm her down, and “lovingly called her Judalein,” though he had to slap her once when she kept cracking up at the clowning of Lahr’s Cowardly Lion.

Having just seen The Wizard of Oz again, in all its dazzlingly remastered splendor, I’m sure of one thing. You can talk all you want about the spectacular beauty and ingenuity of the production, the joyous infectious music, the story, the Brooklyn Lion Bert Lahr (“Put’em up! Put ‘em up!”) singing “King of the Forest,” and the eloquent body language of Ray Bolger, and all the other wonders and delights, but the heart and soul of the film, the essence of its greatness, is Judy Garland. Even if you were to subtract her unforgettable performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — as the producers apparently once considered doing — the movie would still glow with her strength and sweetness, intelligence, courage, and heart (qualities for which she needs no Wizard), and the emotional magic that illuminates her and makes her incomparable, whether here at age 16 or a decade and a half later singing “The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born or making show biz history onstage at Carnegie Hall in 1961.

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